OSAKA – Dealing with tensions between Japan and its East Asian neighbors, resolving the long-stalled relocation of the U.S. Futenma base, negotiating the Trans-Pacific Partnership free-trade deal, and promoting nuclear power while Japan looks to phase it out are just some of the bilateral issues U.S. President Barack Obama faces in his second term.
Still, Tokyo’s overall ties with Washington appear sound, commentators say, and things will change little following Obama’s Tuesday re-election, which was backed by 80 percent of the Japanese public according to one poll.
Lingering memories of U.S. assistance after last year’s earthquake and tsunami and, more recently, support for the bilateral security alliance in the face of tensions with China over the Japan-administered Senkaku Islands have also positively contributed to developing ties.
However, the possible replacement of U.S. officials who deal with Japan is a key concern in determining exactly what kind of approach Obama’s administration might take toward not only Japan but the rest of East Asia.
At the same time, the unstable political situation in Tokyo has officials in Washington wondering who the president will be dealing with. Obama has already seen four prime ministers assume office since he was first inaugurated in January 2009.
“Relations between Japan and the U.S. in a second Obama administration won’t drastically change,” said Tsuneo Watanabe, a senior fellow at the Tokyo Foundation think tank.
“But it depends on the political appointees, especially the question of who might replace the well-respected Kurt Campbell,” he added, referring to the U.S. assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs.
But Watanabe noted that what will really be needed is strong political leadership that will involve risk-taking.
“There is already good (bilateral) cooperation between the two militaries and government bureaucracies. What’s lacking is bilateral political leadership,” he said. “For example, to solve the Futenma issue, political capital on both sides must be spent, but this could prove difficult.”
Steve Clemons of the Washington-based New America Foundation is optimistic Obama will make Japan and Asia a larger foreign policy priority. Given concerns in Tokyo and Washington about China’s ever-growing influence, this means, specifically, a greater emphasis on cooperation between the Maritime Self-Defense Force and the U.S. Navy.
“You will see more of an Asian presence in the Obama administration and more focus on base expansion and diffusion. There is enthusiasm in the White House for closer working-level coordination with Japan’s defense forces writ large — but particularly Japan’s navy and coast guard,” Clemons said.
However, he does not foresee any movement on relocating U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma within Okinawa in the near future, noting neither Tokyo nor Washington wants to spend money on a replacement facility.
On the TPP trade initiative, Obama faces opposition not only from many quarters in Japan, but also from powerful groups in America. In July, 134 members of Congress called on his administration to release the draft text of the TPP, to no avail. In late August, a followup letter signed by eight members of Congress explained the reasons for their interest in obtaining a copy.
“These include seeking to address concerns that the (TPP) framework being negotiated may undermine ‘Buy American’ procurement policies, place limits on robust financial regulation, restrict access to lifesaving medicines in developing nations and jeopardize the safety of imported food, to name a few,” the letter said.
The American Automotive Policy Council, an industry lobby group representing Ford Motor Co., General Motors Co. and Chrysler LLC, is in favor of the TPP but opposes Japan’s participation, saying Tokyo’s trade barriers in the auto sector can’t be addressed easily or quickly and would therefore slow down the ongoing negotiations.
Clemons believes the Obama administration has been indifferent on Japan’s entry to the TPP discussions, and that the real question concerns what actions Tokyo will take.
“The domestic costs to Japan are high for it to join, and the Obama administration will be unwilling to give much away to get Japan in,” he said. “Japan, on the other hand, will fear being outside the TPP network. That is what will make the negotiations and situation tense and interesting.”
However, Watanabe noted that as with Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda’s government, divisions exist within Obama’s administration over the role of the TPP that could create problems during his second term.
“Some people see it as a strategic issue, but the (Office of the U.S. Trade Representative) sees it as a trade agreement,” Watanabe said.
One area in which Washington and Tokyo are strengthening ties that could become more controversial over the coming months is energy cooperation, especially in terms of nuclear technology.
In April, Tokyo and Washington announced the establishment of a U.S.-Japan Bilateral Commission on Civil Nuclear Cooperation focused on promoting the spread of nuclear power between the two sides, as well as in a multilateral context.
But pressure from Washington over the summer to persuade Noda not to completely phase out atomic energy by the 2030s, despite media polls showing a clear majority of Japanese back this step, could create problems.